When you have eliminated the spectacle—whatever remains must reveal the quality of the film.
The final confrontation between Sherlock Holmes and James Moriarty takes place over a chess match wherein the two characters start dictating moves to each other with the board offscreen leaving any context of where the pieces are blissfully out of the way for its audience. Unfortunately, the latest Sherlock Holmes movie plays the plot in the same way it does this game. A Game of Shadows does to Sherlock Holmes what Quantum of Solace did to James Bond, taking the myths of the Sherlock Holmes character and dumbing him down into a generic action hero, rather than an unique character—it’s more opium than brilliance.
It would be a travesty if any sort of comprehensible narrative could make the film predictable so director Guy Ritchie wisely decided that any context for the narrative should be briefly explained at the end. The viewer is dragged through a collection of chase scenes and over-the-top action sequences that are reliant on the audience being comprised of people who enjoy such spectacles and will overlook the incomprehensibility of the plot or absence of any good characterisation. It’s not completely unwatchable, anyone who is familiar with the stories by Sir. Arthur Conan Doyle will recognize the plot is lifted from the constantly adapted short story “The Final Problem”.
Robert Downey Jr. returns to the role of Sherlock Holmes, playing the character like a Victorian-era Tony Stark. Jude Law abandons his strong portrayal of Watson from the first film for a much more inconsistent portrayal of the character. Noomi Rapace, star of the amazing adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (in other words, not David Fincher’s upcoming American remake) comes in to replace Rachel McAdams’ playing the iconic Irene Adler with a throwaway female character, who is based primarily on dissuading mainstream audiences of Holmes putting a ‘silver blaze’ on Watson’s Baker Street.
The replacement of Adler is handled about gracefully as Vanessa Kensington’s exit in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me without the self-aware comedy, which speaks to how well director Guy Ritchie and screenwriters Kieran and Michele Mulroney have handled the material. In fact, the writers have almost taken too much of a page from Austin Powers with Mycroft Holmes (Stephen Fry) wandering about with his ‘speckled band’ conveniently covered by household objects.
Jared Harris is able to hook no new angle on Professor James Moriarty; no longer hiding in the shadows, any connection between his character and the shadowy character from the first movie of this series is gone: he is not longer concealed, nor does he carry that retractable pistol in his arm. Whatever importance there was to Lord Blackwell’s device from the earlier film is likewise long since forgotten along with any pretext of continuity.
It feels strange talking about this film as a sequel, setting this film up was an elementary part of its predecessor, but the absence of any of the characterisation and plot elements from Sherlock Holmes (2009) reveal quite deliberately that this is more of a cash-in than a fresh look at Doyle’s characters.
The film does keep some of the motifs: irritating slow motion explosions, pistols that cause their users to erupt into flame, and Holmes planning out how to dispatch his enemies. The lattermost example is put to good use during the final fight between Moriarty and Holmes in which both characters plan out how their physical contest will be decided. This scene is perhaps the only redeeming scene of the entire film but it is hard to care about its outcome when the rest of the film has provided no reason to care about its characters.
If there were a Razzie for worst sound mixing, A Game of Shadows would be a contender. Throughout the first half of the film, the dialogue is hardly audible over the ambient noise and Hans Zimmer’s pounding soundtrack. It doesn’t help that Downey’s voice is often low and soft making it hard to appreciate his many quips and few observations.
At the end of the game, the single worst part about this two hour long bastardization of Sherlock Holmes was that the theatre that I was at didn’t have the decency to make the film worthwhile by attaching the promised trailers for The Hobbit or The Dark Knight Rises to the film. As for the mythos of the character, BBC’s modern adaptation has more insight into the world of Holmes than big budget special effects Hollywood films will ever have into any literary character. Case closed.